Book Review by Heidi Simmons
When It Happens To You
By Molly Ringwald
Molly Ringwald’s acting career is pretty amazing. Very few actors gain iconic status as she has and live to tell about it. But even more impressive is her role as author. Her new book, When It Happens To You (It Books, 240 pages), is a novel composed of eight independent stories that ultimately weave a satisfying tale of love and betrayal.
The overarching story takes place throughout a single year as Greta and Phillip, a married couple with a five-year-old daughter, grapple with an infidelity and their family’s precarious future.
Though each of the eight stories is self-contained, and can stand on its own, Ringwald brilliantly weaves together characters, setting and theme. When new characters are introduced, we realize they all share a wider community. As their lives intersect, sometimes only slightly, we learn something new about the damaged and hurting family.
Speaking recently at the Arts and Letters Series at UCR Palm Desert, Ringwald read from her book and talked about what inspired When It Happens To You. “The genesis was betrayal. It is something we all know. You can betray yourself as well as others. I wanted to write about different kinds of betrayal and people who were connected in a much more incidental way.”
There is wisdom and sophistication in Ringwald’s writing. She writes about the nuance and the finesse our fragile relationships require to maintain the delicate balance. She has an acute perception of our human foibles and persistent flaws. Yet she writes with the respect and admiration for human resilience, unafraid to tackle the ugly side of behavior.
In “My Olivia,” a single mother must decide how best to help her small child deal with his gender identity. Even in their progressive school and liberal community, the mother struggles to do the right thing for her kid with little support and understanding from those around her. Ringwald envelops us in the sorrow and passion of these dear fraught souls.
Midway is the title chapter “When It Happens To You.” It’s a warning that Greta directly addresses to the reader. Here, she is fighting her new reality, trying to come to terms with the messy and painful situation of her betrayal. It is a bold, honest, defensive, humble and self-loathing diatribe. Greta is not so much pointing a finger at us, but rather asks: Is any of this familiar?
Greta’s husband Phillip explores his shame and destructive behavior in “Mea Culpa.” The reader gets another look into the layered betrayal theme. His disloyalty to Greta started long before his infidelity with his daughter’s music teacher. Never does Ringwald tell you what to think or how to judge. She shows all sides, taking the reader in deeper into the pathology and moral dilemma.
“Redbud” touched a nerve in this reader. Greta takes her mother to a nursery to buy plants. She cannot tell her mother of Phillip’s infidelity. Her mother, aware something is wrong, says nothing either. They each struggle to relate, to understand one another but there is too much water under the bridge, to many issues over too many years. It is draining to even consider a conversation about anything other than plants. It is a recognizable betrayal that exists, not only between parents and their children, but between siblings and spouses as well.
The final chapter, “The Places You Don’t Walk Away From,” allows the reader the freedom to decide about Greta and Phillip. It also allows for self-reflection and self-analysis of our own personal betrayals.
Ringwald is an avid reader and it shows in her confident, well-worked prose. She has always considered herself a writer. She remembers the first time she experienced the recognition that the author was speaking to her directly. She was working on the movie Sixteen Candles and the book was J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories.
As an adult, she became a big fan of Raymond Carver. Ringwald said about Carver’s book: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love just astounded me. It was his simplicity of language and the power of what he didn’t say.” Much like Carver, Ringwald understands the nature of quality story telling, and the impact of what’s between the lines.
Molly Ringwald may work as a fine actor, but she’s an exceptional author.